CLUELESS IN SANTA MONICA 

Fact vs. Fiction

SM.a.r.t has watched while the vast majority of the “vested interests” in Santa Monica have uniformly decided to oppose Measure LV, which is on the November ballot in Santa Monica. We looked at the position taken by an organization entitled Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). They declared opposition to the Residocracy-crafted Land Use Voter Empowerment Measure (LV), citing concerns that the measure would unduly burden low-income people.

Having examined the group’s fact sheet, SM.ar.t. believes it reflects more fiction than fact. We suggest the following as a more responsible and “just” description of what the initiative will, and will not do:

  • IT WILL NOT ADD VEHICLES TO OUR ROADS

It is certain that large commercial developments would add thousands of additional cars to our already packed city streets. Our downtown traffic is a testament to this. The measure may curtail these commercial magnets and the cars they attract.  More development creates more, not less, traffic.

  • IT WILL NOT COMPLICATE EVERY ELECTION WITH LAND-USE PROPOSALS

Similar initiatives in three other cities have resulted in only ONE special election. Most developers will simply adjust their expectations to the lowered zoning code. Speculative developers will not risk their money on uncertain elections. Our existing code allows 32-foot-tall commercial buildings and a bonus of 36 feet for mixed-use projects, if a minimum of 20% of the units are affordable.  This will not change. This will reduce the speculative increase in land values.  The lowered cost of construction will help keep rents affordable.

We cannot rely on developer money to finance our affordable housing stock. In our city of primarily 1 and-2 story buildings, there is ample opportunity for more affordable housing – both new and repurposed from existing building stock. We cannot and should not rely on developer money for our affordable housing stock. The Affordable Housing Initiative (Measures GS and GSH) on the November ballot offers a better alternative for the preservation of affordable housing stock.

  • IT WILL DECREASE OUTSIDE SPECIAL-INTEREST MONEY IN LOCAL ELECTIONS

The presence of Special Interest Money will be reduced. Developers that exceed the existing zoning standards will be required to obtain voter approval for their projects.  Currently, City Council has this authority which results in donations from developers swaying their vote. The Initiative will take the money out of politics and put control back into the hands of residents.

  • IT WILL SLOW GENTRIFICATION

Currently, developers are purchasing existing, low-cost housing and proposing that they be replaced with large-scale, mixed-use projects. This process disrupts neighborhoods, and accelerates gentrification.  Both State statutes and our local zoning ordinances provide bonuses for affordable housing.  If anything, it will slow gentrification.

  • IT RECOGNIZES EXEMPTIONS FOR SCHOOLS ANDPUBLIC BUILDINGS

Public Schools, Community Colleges, UCLA Hospital, and most essential services buildings are processed thru the Division of the State Architect and are exempt from local zoning codes and the initiative. They can still process new building requests without a popular vote.

  • IT DOES NOT ALTER EXISTING RECONSTRUCTION

California GOVERNMENT CODE 65850-65863.13 65852.25. states in part:

“(a) No local agency shall enact or enforce any ordinance, regulation, or resolution that would prohibit the reconstruction, restoration, or rebuilding of a multifamily dwelling that is involuntarily damaged or destroyed by fire, other catastrophic event…” 

Rebuilding after a disaster is not restricted.  Upon passage, most buildings taller than 32 feet will become “existing, non-conforming.” Santa Monica Municipal Code Section 9.27.040  states “An existing nonconforming structure that is damaged or destroyed by a non-voluntary… disaster may be restored or replaced to its density (including square footage and number of rooms or dwelling units, as applicable), parking, building footprint and envelope, and height that existed prior to the destruction …”

  • IT ENCOURAGES AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Mixed-use commercial and housing projects are required to provide a minimum of 20% affordable units and not exceed 3 stories or 36 ft. Projects with less than 50 affordable units are exempt from these restrictions.

  • IT AVOIDS GOVERNMENT CONFLICTS-OF-INTEREST

Currently every large project in Santa Monica that exceeds current codes requires a Development Agreement (D.A.).  Obtaining a D.A. can result in millions of dollars in profits for the developer.  D.A.’s currently require approval by only four individuals – the majority of the City Council.  This concentration of power in the hands of a few elected officials is a formula for abuse.  This has been borne out as large donations from developers have seemingly eroded the democratic process.

  • IT ENABLES NEIGHBORHOODS TO DECIDE THEIR FUTURE

The City states that it “relies on resident’s involvement in planning decisions”. Yet the wishes of our neighborhoods often appear to be ignored by the Planning Commission and the City Council. The initiative ONLY requires large projects that EXCEED current Codes be approved by residents. Most housing projects without a commercial component are exempt.

  • IT TAKES MONEY OUT OF PUBLIC PLANNING

Our community vision must be reflected in our community plans. Instead, they favor special interests who benefit from a denser, overbuilt city. Santa Monica needs effective coordinated action, but it must represent our residents.  When the existing system fails residents, they have no choice but to right the ship.  The proposed measure initiative appears to restore the checks and balances that are inherent in our governmental system.

CLUE suggests the initiative is “confusing, complicated & unpredictable.” While it may not be to the political liking of the CLUE group, over 10,000 Santa Monica residents signed petitions to have the measure included on the ballot.  SM.ar.t  suggests that you read the ballot measure in its entirety.  It is only 2 ¼ pages long.  It’s clean and simple.  Make your decision based on fact, not supposition.

SMART (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) 

Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

Macro Problems & Micro Planning Put City’s Future At Risk

Planning

Santa Monica’s Downtown is unique in that it is contained on three sides with cliffs to the west, deep canyon to the north and the Santa Monica Freeway to the south. This limits access to and from the center of our City. Since most major arteries terminate in Downtown, there are few ways for residents to escape the inevitable gridlock.

Ironically, the Expo Line, that was supposed to reduce traffic, is having the opposite effect due to new Expo gate crossings and pedestrian “scrambles.” The fact that some of our major north/south arteries have had lane reductions and/or are now “one-way” hasn’t helped.

Although the City has tried several strategies to improve traffic, the results have not been promising- our streets continue to be jammed during peak hours. Currently, the number of cars in the Downtown area exceeds the capacity of our streets to accommodate them…. and it is getting worse. Large projects continue to be approved despite the fact that our roads, resources and infrastructure are inadequate to support them. Our Planners need to get ahead of the curve. They need to stop approving projects until their remedial measures can be shown to be effective.

For example, it would seem that good planning would reduce rather than increase the number of permanent cars in the Downtown area. Actually, the opposite is the case. Of the 55 Development Agreements in the pipeline, about 2/3 of those pending or approved are slated for Downtown and 2/3 of those will be on Lincoln Blvd. These new projects will require parking for around 8,560 new cars – almost as much as currently exists in ALL of the City’s 14 lots- 8,683 cars! Added to this number will be the cars for 1,000 new hotels rooms. What has been until now an inconvenience is about to become a nightmare…. and perhaps an unending one.

If the past is any indication, the solution does not lie in better traffic control, more parking structures or traffic cops. There is a much simpler solution, and it may be the only one that can affect a meaningful change- a cap on development. This is particularly important in the Downtown area but could also be considered in other parts of the City as well. At present, what we are witnessing is the opposite. Our infrastructure has become strained to the point where “brownouts” are more common and our goal for water self sufficiency less likely. Our schools are full and some emergency services are understaffed and ill prepared for the increasing number of residents and visitors. Simply stated, Santa Monica, for now, may have reached its “Limits to Growth”.

Over the 25 years, from 1985 to 2010, there were fewer than 10 moderately sized projects that exceeded Santa Monica’s codes approved with Development Agreements. In the 6 years since 2010, there have been nearly 6 times that number- 57. On average, the more recent ones have all been much larger. These new projects go far beyond what our city fathers envisioned when our planning code was written. Most (67%) are planned for Downtown with 30% of those on our most congested artery- Lincoln Blvd. If all of these projects approved by City officials come to fruition, the fate of our City may be sealed. It will not be what most residents would have preferred. Something must change before Santa Monica becomes a second ‘Playa Vista’ that can be seen mestasizing like a cancer along Jefferson Blvd.

macro-problems-600-dpi-sketch-9-14-2016

One justification for this rush to develop using D.A.s for projects that exceed current codes is the need for affordable housing. Most of the large mixed-use projects under review do have a small component of “affordable housing”- 14% on average. This housing consists mostly of one-bedroom or studio units that are smaller than a two-car garage. Like garages, they are often located in the least desirable part of the project. These units are unsuitable for families. Their primary appeal is to a transient workforce that will have little stake in our community. Most couples with children would not want to live far above the street where they are unable to monitor their children below or so far from their car when it comes time to take their kids to school or run errands.

It’s not a coincidence that nearly half of these projects are financed by out of state investors? Their goals are short-term, their motives profit driven and their outcomes often not in the community’s best interest. The paltry development fees and micro units fall far short of compensating residents for their inconvenience and future costs. Sometimes, these projects are built in low-income areas where they displace existing affordable housing and accelerate gentrification. The City needs to find a better way to provide affordable housing that is low-rise, suits families and is located adjacent to parks and schools. To do otherwise, will be counterproductive in the short term and detrimental to the City best interests in the long term.

Thane Roberts AIA & Ron Goldman FAIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

The Soul of Wilshire Boulevard

Boulevards

I was surprised to read an article recently that stated Wilshire Boulevard was in desperate need of height and density. According to the author, it is not a “complete street” and needs “appropriate development”. His interpretation of Santa Monica’s LUCE envisions three- to five-story buildings stacked from the east end of Wilshire into downtown. According to his commentary, we must all be failures, as we haven’t “built out” the boulevard. He suggests that Wilshire can’t possibly be desirable as a street of small shops for daily tasks – it might only reach success with mid-rise mixed-use buildings. “How strange”, I thought after I read the piece. I didn’t realize Wilshire was such a wasteland… a desert of empty shops that nobody walks to.

That thought prompted me to look back at my family’s history and our connection to Wilshire Boulevard. My grandparents moved to 12th Street in the 1930’s. My mother walked to school at Jefferson, Madison and then Lincoln each morning under my grandmother’s watchful eye. Grandmother walked to Vons each afternoon to get a piping hot loaf of Pioneer sourdough bread. My family used the Will Rogers Post Office, walked to See’s Candy, bought ice cream at Baskin Robins, ate breakfast at Callahan’s, shopped at Mart Furniture and used the dry cleaners and laundromat. My grandfather was a butcher at Ralphs on Third and Wilshire and later at the A&P Market at Wilshire and Berkeley. My mother worked at Jeffrey’s Hair Salon on 10th and Wilshire. On Thursday nights, when my mother worked late, I walked to KFC, A&W or H Salt to get dinner. Later, I opened my first bank account at First Federal Savings on 4th and Wilshire. My significant other waitressed at the Feed Bag before I knew her and I bought jeans at Tex’s and The Corral. Many celebrities started their careers waiting tables and singing at The Great American Food & Beverage Company. I ate often at the Broken Drum. My grandparents danced each New Years Eve away at a restaurant on Wilshire.

So, I take umbrage with the gentleman who disparaged Wilshire. The area between Montana Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard is a densely populated apartment zone with their services on “Mr. Wilshire’s” Boulevard.

I took a fresh look at my family’s neighborhood street this week. I walked the blocks my mother still walks daily with her dog “Sandy”. I spotted thriving Ukrainian, Persian and British markets. I noticed our neighborhood Jewish Deli full of customers. I walked by a Mexican bakery with people using its sidewalk tables, and glanced at the busy bakery where I’d once bought a wedding cake. I peered into Ingo’s Tasty Diner, the successor to Callahan’s – modernized yet with an ode to the restaurant that’s always been there – a great, fun adaptive reuse. I watched people enter our neighborhood sushi bar and our local pizza joint. A bright bicycle shop now occupies the adaptively restored movie theatre where I used to watch double features each Saturday. A pet clinic, beauty salons, a children’s salon, two mattress stores, a travel agency and “dueling” donut shops are on this street. The Vons is still there, as is Rite-Aid (once J.J. Newberry’s and Rexall Drugs). Two banks, a TV store and a new exercise facility all exist within four blocks.

Funny…from what I described above, I might think I was in a lively neighborhood in New York City or London instead of “downtrodden” Wilshire. Because my family has walked, shopped, dined and dreamed on Wilshire, I see it as the most important neighborhood-serving street in our town. Most of its businesses are not destinations for our daily influx of tourists and office workers…they are there to serve our residents. What a concept – shops that serve the people who live here.

We are an incredibly dense place, yet many architects, developers and institutional speculators who have no real roots in our city want to pack in even more growth. They don’t see the history of our glorious town because, frankly, that history carries no dollar signs for them. I walked Wilshire growing up. I attended Madison, Lincoln and Samohi. I took my first date to the Newberry’s counter. I was honored to connect many mornings with one of my past students and her salt-of-the-earth immigrant family at Callahan’s. Decades ago, I even had a root beer float prepared by Mr. Callahan himself. I met “Little Oscar” at the A&W. There’s something great about walking a street where there are small, independent retailers, restaurants, insurance agents and donut shops.

Of course, Wilshire can be improved. A local assessment district could be created. Strategically placed small footprint, mixed-use, three-story buildings can be added. More sidewalk seating and additional green space are needed. The declaration that neighborhoods cannot exist without continuous rows of five-story buildings replacing longstanding successful “Mom & Pop” businesses, is dead wrong. Those same advocates looked at the Vons Market property as an “opportunity site” for a 500-car underground garage and a six-story, massive apartment development. Many who live in the Wilmont and Mid-City Neighborhood saw that proposal as a “community detriment” with no benefit.

The services that residents need for their daily lives are on Wilshire – the spots where they eat, shop and breathe. Wilshire has served three generations of my family as it now serves residents who live in the surrounding apartment buildings. Preserving our neighborhood’s character and soul must be our highest civic priority.

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

LUVE Initiative

In the mid 19th century, America’s West held the promise of cheap land and riches. In some ways, this myth still holds. Last year, Oregon and California had the fastest growing economies in the United States.

Much of the economic growth is concentrated along California’s coast and in the Los Angeles region. This rapid pace of change has caught our city-planners off guard. As a result, we are witnessing the degradation of the built and natural environments. City officials have been slow to recognize the negative impacts from newly approved projects. Often they have been complicit in this “land grab” that has resulted in the profits of outside interests taking precedence over residents’ needs and concerns.

Encinitas, Yorba Linda and Sierra Madre are among Southern California cities that have adopted tough land use ordinances that require voter approval on projects that are outside of their zoning codes. Over 104,000 Los Angeles voters have signed the petition for the proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. It will be on the March 2017 municipal ballot. Throughout Southern California, residents are using voter initiatives to push back against the trend to overbuild in their communities. Santa Monica residents have placed their own Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative (Measure LV) on the November ballot. If passed, it will cap development in the City to Tier 1, the “by right” height in the current code. Projects that exceed the “by right” height would require voter approval. This initiative would adjust the approval process, NOT the current, allowable height limits.

This would put an end to back room deals between developers and City officials. It would place the City’s fate into the hands of the residents where it belongs. Our City’s residents have been on the losing end of the development game for too long. The mantra that “bigger is better” would be replaced with “enough is enough”. It would allow residents to be proactive rather than stand idly by as their communities become unrecognizable. Our City Manager recently said: “A sense of place does not consist of buildings, but the spirit and uniqueness of the environment in which it exists.” Unfortunately, not all city council members appear to share this view.

Santa Monica has natural barriers that define our unique 8.4 square miles. These same barriers protect our unique character. We just need to control what occurs within them. It is imperative that we resist those who would believe our unique qualities are not to be enjoyed, but rather marketed and sold. This is why residents, not developers or City officials, must have the last word. This is what the voter empowerment initiative does. It returns these important choices to those who have the most at stake – the residents.

As the new planning codes are being rewritten, development agreements for non-conforming projects continue to be approved at a frightening rate. These projects strain our resources, our infrastructure, and increase traffic on our streets. These ongoing problems will be borne on the backs of citizens long after the developers have pocketed their profits and left town. The memories of the Santa Monica from earlier times will not be there for our children to enjoy.

So, how can we both preserve our past as we plan our future? Do we need to tear down what is here to make room for that which is to come? NO! Did you know that 15% of our city is now available for development? Specifically, 40% of our downtown and 85% of our boulevards are comprised of 1 and 2-story buildings or parking lots. These buildings would provide the area for more than 8 million square feet of additional ground floor commercial development. Above street level, it would be possible to create an additional 14,500,000 square feet of residential space, capable of housing up to 29,000 additional residents over the coming decades. We should be repurposing buildings rather than just tearing them down. It’s a no brainer to save both public funds and our heritage.

Santa Monica must not become stuck in time. However, we should not race ahead with short-term planning. Our residents know that these developments are driven more by profit than common sense. Although increased density is inevitable, it must be well managed. It is a devil’s bargain to allow for unrestrained development in exchange for a few tax dollars or undersized low-cost units. No amount of “community benefits” can compensate for the negative impact that would ensue and then would be irreversible.

For Santa Monica to continue to be a progressive, livable city, we must find a way to balance our priorities of growth and quality of life. Our transition to the future will be successful only if we can plan ahead properly and act with restraint. We must act to preserve our city for future generations.

Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow